As expected, the louts from the far right didn’t materialise in town on Saturday (21 May), but this doesn’t mean the threat to democracy and free speech has gone from the streets of Ledbury. A more insidious authoritarian movement is taking root in the town, not among the more rabid elements of social media as might be supposed, but centred within Ledbury Town Council itself.
There is a conspiracy to purge the Council of dissenters. Some councillors appear to be waging a concerted campaign of denigration against their critics. Yes, they are telling lies, but the old guard are also busily manipulating the levers of power to firm their grip on power. The aim is to eliminate from Ledbury Town Council dissident voices, any trace of resistance. By also creating such a hostile environment, it is clear that no decent-minded person would in future contemplate standing for election. If all goes according to plan, at the next poll, there will be few candidates willing to stand for Council, just the old faces, allowing the old rotten borough practice of co-option to return with a vengeance. Neat isn't it?
In Ledbury, as in other politically stricken towns (such as Berwick, Frodsham, Peterlee, Tewkesbury), local democracy is being nicely snuffed out by a ruthless clique of legally sanctioned hoodlums. Town and parish councils are truly laws unto themselves: there is no oversight, no ombudsman, no higher authority to which you can appeal. Resistance is not tolerated. They are fertile territory for power freaks, narcissists and right-wing authoritarians.
As 'banned' Ledbury Town Councillor Andrew Harrison pointed out at last week's Annual Council Meeting (12 May 2016), our Council is a morally bankrupt institution.
If you express an opinion which is contrary to the majority view, and which offends elements of extreme right wing nationalists, you are now liable to be reported for bringing the council into disrepute. Even as an elected councillor, you are not allowed to state your opinion within a council debate, it seems. [i]
Minutes, the bedrock of legal constitutional practice, are subject to manipulation, distortion and omission of key facts which present a false account of proceedings. [ii]
Scrutiny by elected members is regarded at best as trouble-making, but if persistent, is subject to accusations of bullying and harassment leading to ‘banning’ (as has happened to Andrew Harrison and Liz Harvey).[iii]
When some elected councillors with alternative opinions attempt to put their side of things, they are told to be quiet, while others, with more palatable views, are given free rein to read out pre-written statements, wander off topic and be generally offensive or inflammatory whenever they wish. [iv]
The Ledbury Town Council establishment takes a very relaxed attitude to the application of its standing orders and financial regulations, either ignoring them completely or, if this proves inconvenient, chucking them aside and coming up with new rules that better suit its purposes. Meantime, some of the rules of operation are scrupulously observed, generally those that disallow discussion or are controlling in nature.[v]
At the head of this league table of democratic contempt is the matter of council resolutions, when a vote is taken to do something: these decisions are theoretically inviolate, as legally binding as a court judgement. But in the deceitful world of Ledbury Town Council, they are, if required, completely ignored by councillors (and sometimes staff). [vi]
Taken in the round, Ledbury Town Council is a corrupt institution. It has members who are motivated by greed for power, personal self-interest and covert political objectives. It is a place where objectivity, fairness and respect as core ethical values are entirely missing. Anything goes.
Political scientists draw a distinction between dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. The former are characterised by the rule of a single figure, or a small ‘junta’; they are totalitarian in the sense that there is no freedom of speech or expression, while democratic institutions and an independent judiciary are suppressed.
Ledbury is not a dictatorship – despite the increasing power and influence that has accreted to the cultish figure of the Mayor in recent years under Annette Crowe and Bob Barnes, abetted by the local press.
Life under an authoritarian administration is rarely much more agreeable even if it appears less overtly vicious than a dictatorship. There exists superficially a plural system to which the trappings of democracy are paid lip service with elections, legislative debate, and the toleration of dissent – up to a point.
In places like Russia, Zimbabwe, and Turkey however, the odds are stacked against alternative voices. There are prosecutions for defaming the government or the church, trumped up charges against opposition politicians, redrawing of the legislative framework to outlaw criticism and there is collusion with a supine press which presents one-sided reportage. Sound familiar?
In this toxic setting, political corruption is rife: nepotism, croneyism, mutual back-scratching for personal advantage and shady deals to do down opponents, up to an including violence. Because the government so effectively controls the channels of mass communication, and by patronage, pulls the strings of the civil service and judges, these regimes cling to power by popular assent. Putin, Mugabe and Erdogan are undeniably popular, and continue to win elections. It doesn’t make them good people or run good governments. The people are spun a line, kept in ignorance. Critics of the regime have their reputations ruined. Dirty tricks do the trick.
When there are no rules to which the powerful (and rich) adhere, and when there are no mechanisms to call politicians to account, the door is open to financial corruption. If there’s nobody watching the sweetshop, why wouldn’t people fill their pockets with lollies and bonbons? In dirty politics, you do what you can get away with. Why not?
The cancerous nature of authoritarian administration is more than dispiriting. It robs places of their creative vigour and dynamic energy. What’s the point in trying? Advancement happens not by talent or merit, but by knuckling down and playing the game, doing as you’re told, licking sweaty arses.
And so to Ledbury. The miserable tarnished crew dodge and scheme their way to looming perdition. We hope. But in the meantime, the casualties are many. Not just the two banned councillors, and those who have resigned or retired in disgust (I am one of a long line over the years), but the decent souls around the town who look on in dismay, the young people sickened by politics, the ratepayers who receive poor value for money, and the enthusiasts for change and action who have their dreams quashed at every turn. Good things happen in Ledbury despite its entourage of costly politicians. Mediocrity rules.
Ledbury's authoritarian town council is not just a democratic obscenity, but it is a tragedy for our community.
Here's a final thought. I have had some harsh words to say about these people over the years. People ask me, how do I get away with saying such awful things without incurring actions for libel. It's quite simple. I tell the truth. Nothing I say, not a word, is without evidence and justification. Ledbury Town Council is at liberty to sue me for defamation. I challenge them. Do it.
[i] Cllr Liz Harvey is being reported by Ledbury Town Council for bringing the Council into disrepute. Her offence was to suggest that red, white and blue bunting should not be left up all summer long as it could be construed by some people as a political symbol of the far right, of Loyalist sentiment. Cllr Annette Crowe said that ‘because we’ve had so many complaints about the [bunting issue], and that’s gone into the national newspapers, and the threat from the far right… should not be how a council acts, and I propose that [this] goes forward to Herefordshire Council [as a complaint].
[ii] At Ledbury Town Council Standing Committee on 22 December 2015, a resolution was taken to seek alternative clerical support and advice to that being offered by Lynda Wilcox, who was judged not to be impartial and objective in managing the staff complaints process against Cllrs Harrison and Harvey. Lynda Wilcox was acting as stand-in Clerk to LTC and is the Chief Executive of Herefordshire Council of Local Councils. (She is also the wife of Cllr Brian Wilcox, Conservative Councillor and Chairman of Herefordshire Council, but that's another story...)
Minutes of that Standing Committee meeting were presented by Annette Crowe to Full Council on 28 January which omitted the Standing Committee resolution dispensing with Lynda Wilcox (who also wrote the minutes). Annette Crowe presented them as an accurate record, knowing them to be incomplete and misleading.
A verbal report was also made by Mayor Annette Crowe to LTC Full Council on 19 January, stating that it had been agreed by Standing Committee that Full Council would henceforth be handling the staff grievances (not Standing Committee). No such discussion took place. Annette Crowe actively misled Ledbury Town Council.
At the meeting of 25 February Full Council, Cllr Maria Mackness asked why the minutes of Standing Committee were ‘incomplete’. Mayor Crowe refused to discuss the matter and ordered Cllr Mackness to move on. Minutes of that Full Council meeting (25 Feb) written by Karen Mitchell, presented on 7 April, omitted Cllr Mackness’s important question. Councillors challenged the accuracy of these minutes (because they were incomplete), and were told by the Clerk that accuracy could only be discussed of what was written, not what had been left out.
Mrs Wilcox clerked the Extraordinary Full Council Meeting (5 May) to consider ‘sanctions’ against Cllrs Harrison and Harvey.
Cllr Harrison questioned why Full Council was being asked to determine the sanctions against them for bullying, when there had been a council resolution on 19 January which said that the Grievance Panel itself should set the sanctions. Lynda Wilcox said the process was within the terms of reference agreed, and LTC was acting correctly. (It was not).
Minutes presented at LTC council meeting 12 May, omitted Cllr Harrison’s important question: again, discussion of the accuracy of minutes was only allowed for what was written, not was left out.
Annette Crowe misled councillors on 19 January by not stating that Standing Committee had resolved not to use Lynda Wilcox henceforth because she was prejudiced and compromised.
Minutes have been systematically falsified to conceal this fact by Lynda Wilcox, and presented as accurate by Annette Crowe, Mayor.
Council took decisions concerning the prosecution of the grievance process which were contrary to council resolutions, unlawful in respect of the provisions of the Localism Act 2011, and outside of ACAS guidelines pertaining to grievance procedures.
Had they been provided with a true and accurate record, it most unlikely this process would have unfolded in the way it did.
[iii] Cllrs Harrison and Harvey have been found guilty of bullying, harassment and intimidation of the Clerk and Deputy Clerk of Ledbury Town Council. The evidence for this is subject to independent review by the Monitoring Officer of Herefordshire Council so cannot be discussed in detail at this point, but it will soon be in the public arena. Both councillors deny any wrong-doing and contend that they have been systematically blocked from investigating potential financial irregularities, breaches of procedure, lack of staff impartiality, and political conspiracy.
[iv] As an example, during the discussion of the motion to report Cllrs Harvey and Warmington to Herefordshire Council for misconduct, Cllr Harrison attempted to say a few words in their defense (at 7’41” in the film clip). He was stopped by Mayor Debbie Baker. In contrast a few minutes earlier, Cllr Martin Eager (at 4’38”) read out a prewritten statement denouncing Cllr Harvey which had nothing to do with the motion under discussion but was allowed to speak unhindered.
Such two-sided treatment is a regular feature of LTC debate: if you agree with the ‘establishment’ you can speak, if not, you are silenced.
[v] The most outlandish recent example of this concerns the procedure LTC used to prosecute the grievance complaints against Cllrs Harrison and Harvey. In short, LTC should have referred the complaint to Herefordshire Council for review by the Monitoring Officer. Even if it had been handled in-house, the matter should have been dealt with by the Standing Committee according to Standing Orders. Instead it was given to the 16 councillors who constitute the Full Council. The reason for these hastily cobbled together changes were to load the dice against an innocent verdict by recruiting about a dozen politically hostile councillors into the process: precisely the reason why code of conduct complaints should properly be considered by the Monitoring Officer.
[vi] Having got itself into a mess with the grievance process against Cllrs Harrison and Harvey, LTC has twice voted for resolutions which it then has ignored because they would have got in the way of its objective to deliver a guilty verdict.